TL;DR - learn more, get certs, earn $$
Lifelong learning sounds straightforward enough, right? It is, and it isn't...
According to Wikipedia, lifelong learning is:
...the "ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated" pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It is important for an individual's competitiveness and employability, but also enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development.
Now, let's clarify "self-motivated" since it doesn't mean it's purely an idealistic, selfless love of learning that drives you. Though it may, and you or someone you know may be an insatiably curious person that wants to learn about how everything works or why everything is what it is... Your job and your potential next job can certainly be motivators. However, it doesn't mean you're only studying lucrative, "worthwhile" pursuits that can lead to earning more money (though that's always a good motivator!). It could mean that after work, you're learning and perfecting the art of origami/artisanal cheesemaking/microbrewing. Your curiosity and the act of continuing to learn new, or improve existing, capabilities are key characteristics of lifelong learners.
At its core, lifelong learners continually seek out knowledge in different forms (books, videos, hands-on, manipulatives, experiential, etc.) beyond what's required or expected of them. It's now easier than ever to learn about something you're interested in. Technology and the internet have made learning available not only in multiple consumable forms, but has enabled learning in almost any location if you have access and a screen. No longer are you tied to researching in a library or at your office if you have access to the content via a portal/internet/VPN, etc.
Chances are, if you're not logging off of work everyday and binge-watching reality shows or playing video games nonstop, you've got an opportunity to learn something every week, if not every day.
Benefits of lifelong learning
Besides possible benefits associated with delaying cognitive decline as we age, there are other studied benefits like reduced stress levels while reading or engaged in learning activities, improving long-term memory, practicing mindfulness, or even being a happier, more engaging person (because we often want to share what we've learned!). Surely you've experienced the thrill of learning something amazing (to you) and excitedly telling your friends about it as their eyes glaze over... Whether they were interested or not, I'm sure they could sense your enthusiasm! Never underestimate some simple personal fulfillment!
From a practical and economic perspective, the potential for increased earnings is probably the most common motivation for lifelong learning. You may not approach it with the same zeal as your hobby, but it's an acceptable means to an end. If you spend 40 or more hours a week in role requiring multiple areas of knowledge, there's typically always something to learn. Yes, it can feel like a treading water, but that's why we love technology, right? Right?
Technology is always evolving and adapting
If you've been in technology-related roles for more than a year, something significant has changed. If you know some "old veterans" (me?) that have been doing this for more than 20+ years, do we have some stories for you! We've worked with modems, floppy disks, CRT monitors, DECnet and EPROMs before mobile phones became pocket-sized supercomputers. Why is this important besides historical trivia? Because if that "old vet" is still in IT, he/she has adapted (or servicing the last-known PBX in some small town...) to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of technology. We've witnessed networking technology that used to involve dumb hubs evolve into high-powered, high-speed switched networks capable of multiple gigabit speeds. Don't even get me started on how far and ubiquitous wireless technology has come! Remember 802.11b speeds? Groundbreaking! Sorry, I digress. The point is, technology is always changing and if you're interested in staying and growing within the industry, you're going to have to keep up!
Employers want learners
You probably have a base of experience: Years of learning and hands-on work that allow you to do things better, faster and more efficiently than another peer. However, there's a good chance that your new job (internal or external) will require different skills. Remember how we talked about technology constantly changing? You may be a great Cisco network engineer that's learning Juniper for the first time, or how about changing your perspective from working at a small/mid-sized VAR to working at an OEM that actually builds the products you used to sell? How about pivoting from on-premises infrastructure to learning cloud architecture? Either way, there will be a lot of new things to learn and your ability to do so, will help you reap the benefits.
Your new employer will provide onboarding training, but beyond that, most will also provide access to continuous training as new products and features are released. Additionally, your employer will not only encourage, but appreciate you learning more about other technologies they support and sell. Gamification has come a long way and you'll earn badges (and your manager will see your progress!) to mark your achievements as you complete new training courses.
For example, when I was "done" learning routing and switching, I pivoted to voice and unified communications which actually ended up being a lucrative pivot for many reasons. Similarly, a strong presales engineer/architect at a VAR could be a great technical account manager for an OEM or cloud provider by leveraging their rapport-building and adding on new technical talents. Don't forget the tale of a lowly ISP technical support technician who rose through the Cisco engineering ranks to found, build, grow and sell a profitable Cisco services-based company!
So be ready to tell your new prospective employer what you like to learn (work-related or not), how you learn (books? videos? audiobooks?) and maybe even have some recommendations handy if they share some of your interests. Employers often have to hire based on potential, if they can't find that elusive perfect match, and lifelong learners have it.
Prove it! How do employers verify you know what's on your resume?
There are many schools of thought when it comes to technical certifications, but ultimately the majority of employers prefer seeing them versus not. You may argue some certifications are based on rote memorization and not "real world" skills, but to differentiate yourself from others in a hot job market (or world of 8 billion people), you'll want to add some of those acronyms to your resume. Most major manufacturers/providers have a certification system that allows you to start with entry-level knowledge and work your way up the stack, choosing your path along the way. From AWS to Cisco to Python to Salesforce, there are certifications to prove you have taken the time to learn and pass written, simulation-based, or practical exams.
Fine, I'll take some tests - where do I start?
If you don't have requirements or a learning path set out by your current (or potential) role, then you can start by (hopefully) combining your interests with some data from the internet. If you're more of a software developer/programmer, you'll want to look at the most popular programming languages out there. I haven't even talked about the big data, AI/ML, and quantum or specializations like security (so hot right now!).
So carve out some time - it doesn't have to be a ton - and start checking out some possible new topics. Hopefully one of them grabs your attention and then you can dedicate more time to studying in your favorite way. For those that like to read/watch or do hands on, there's a website for you out there. Personally, I love O'Reilly for reading the newest books out there, but there are others like Pluralsight and A Cloud Guru to name a few. Take notes, study, knock out some practice tests or even build a home lab! Don't forget to check with your employer before paying for that exam, since many of them will allow you to expense all (or some) of the certification costs!
If you're looking at roles in IT from operations to technical engineering to cloud, take a look at some of the lists below. Note that you may not be able to take these without pre-requisites, but these should give you an idea of the skills and certifications that many employers (and recruiters!) are looking for.
These lists change constantly and depend on which website you read, but some examples of the top paying IT certifications for 2022 are:
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional
- CISM - Certified Information Security Manager
- Google Cloud - Professional Cloud Architect
- CISSP - Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate
- AWS Certified Security – Specialty
- PMP: Project Management Professional
- Nutanix Certified Professional – Multicloud Infrastructure (NCP-MCI)
- Microsoft Certified: Azure Solutions Architect Expert
- Google Cloud - Cloud Digital Leader
- CISA - Certified Information Systems Auditor
- AWS Certified Big Data – Specialty
- VMware Certified Professional – Data Center Virtualization (VCP-DCV)
- AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
- CCNP Enterprise
Let's compare that to CIO magazine:
- AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
- Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
- Certified Data Privacy Solutions Engineer (CDPSE)
- Certified Data Professional (CDP)
- Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
- Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
- Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
- Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
- Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
- CompTIA (A+, Cloud+, Security+)
- Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect Expert
- Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)
- Oracle MySQL Database Administration
- Project Management Professional (PMP)
- Salesforce Certified Development Lifecycle and Deployment Designer